This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I wrote back then (with some minor editing). And yes, I really did predict Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary — though it took him about 18 years to get the hint:
If Ken Burns is looking for a new documentary to follow up Jazz, I suggest Country. If anybody could unravel the long and twisted history of American country music, it’s Burns. And here’s a decent starting point — not to mention a handy source of soundtrack material: Sony’s American Milestones Series. Begun last year, this ongoing archival project digs up, dusts off and spruces up classic country albums from throughout the 20th century, reissuing them with original cover art, critical essays and, best of all, previously unreleased material. Here’s a rundown of the latest entries:
Diamonds and Dirt
In typical fashion, it took Rodney Crowell a decade to become an overnight sensation. The former Emmylou Harris sideman and freelance tunesmith had been knocking around Nashville for years before he hit paydirt with this fifth album in 1988. It’s not hard to see the attraction. Diamonds and Dirt is a twangeriffic amalgam of rockabilly boogie, country two-step and open-hearted balladry. Crowell’s top-notch songcraft even overcomes the slick ’80s production on tracks like It’s Such A Small World, I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried, She’s Crazy For Leavin, Above And Beyond and After All This Time — all of which hit No. 1. And the three bonus tracks — especially the haunting It’s Lonely Out — all coulda been contenders.
Fire On The Strings
Virginia-born picker Maphis was Eddie Van Halen for the Stetson crowd. As a kid, he taught himself to flat-pick the breakneck fiddle lines of square dances and mountain music. By the early ’50s when these tracks were recorded, he was justifiably known as King of the Strings. His trademark was his custom double-neck Mosrite, but he was just as capable of working his instrumental magic on fiddle, banjo, dobro and pretty much anything else with strings and a neck. In the lightning-fast, squeaky-clean fretwork of Fire On The Strings and Flying Fingers, you can hear the roots of everything from Dick Dale’s hyperactive surf to the pyrotechnic solos of heavy metal axemen like ol’ Eddie. Except Joe never wrote a tune as lame as Jump.
Behind Closed Doors
OK, the countrypolitan piano-ballad title cut is one of the cheesiest slices of country music. And the maudlin sap of The Most Beautiful Girl isn’t far behind. But some of this 1973 breakthrough album’s other tracks harken back to The Silver Fox’s roots as a roadhouse crooner and Sun Records rockabilly rebel. Check out the gospel-driven Peace on You and the cocky bonus cut I’ve Got Mine to glimpse the soulful side of a man whose smooth, caramel tones established him as country’s consummate crooner — even if his songs were so syrupy they should have been pressed on pancakes.
Kristofferson (Me And Bobby McGee)
Now, he’s part of country aristocracy. But back in 1970 when this debut album came out, Kris Kristofferson was the ultimate Nashville outsider — a former Rhodes scholar and Army captain whose literate lyrics, scraggly vocals and rough-hewn, anti-establishment tunes were at odds with the bland fare of the day. Not for long. Once folks heard Me And Bobby McGee, Help Me Make it Through the Night, For The Good Times and Sunday Morning Coming Down, Kristofferson became Music City’s hippie poet laureate and most-covered songwriter. The four bonus cuts, especially the down-and-out ditty The Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me, make this essential listening. And come to think of it, his deep-woods, hungover voice would make him a perfect narrator for a Ken Burns documentary.